BEAUTY AND THE BEAST at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

At Christmas time and in particular in a secular society there is nothing quite as satisfying as a show with buffs up our virtuous inclinations. Like that other seasonal favourite, Scrooge, the Beast is a morally unattractive individual who has (like us all) the potential to become a better person. That the better self needs a little supernatural agency to help it shine through is by the bye as the unabashed concern in the de Beaumont story is the triumph of virtue over avarice and pride.

As befits a didactic story told by a governess to her young ladies of quality the original de Beaumont story has a barefaced message of self-improvement.  However the eighteenth century yarn loses nothing in a modern rendering, being concerned as it is with a well-to-do middle class family having fallen on hard times through no fault of their own.

In this version devised by director, Alex Byrne, and the cast, unnecessary supernatural agency is largely stripped out save for the original curse on the Beast (Martin Bonger) by a disgruntled witch whom the gloriously posh prince/count, going back on his word, refuses to let into his castle on account of her ugliness. The Beast’s condition is thus explained in terms of his deformed inner self being given physical form, the opposite to Dorian Gray we might say. Mr Bonger gives his Beast a seasonal lightness of touch in an, ‘I’m considerably richer than you’, and, ‘Down with poor people’, sort of way, which makes him as comic as he is nasty and makes his redemption through love a satisfying and warming outcome.

Isabella’s older sisters (here, ‘twins’ – Samantha Sutherland and Elliot Davis) have all the airs and graces of thoroughly spoilt young ladies for whom their father’s financial disaster is an absolute calamity.  Being, ‘Poor is not on trend’, complains Anastasia with an Ab Fab petulance. Both sisters are deliciously, excitedly nasty towards their younger sibling who gets as much TLC from them as does long suffering, ‘Daddy’ (Ben Tolley).

Sailing through the whole story with calm virtue and general good nature, Isabella/Beauty (Sara Lessore) is a happily non-sentimental goody-goody who glows with niceness. Her ability and willingness to see the good in people including the Beast and her sisters is thus neither strained nor awkward. She is that paragon of innocent charm our own royal family will no doubt be hoping for in future members.

Musical direction from Elliot Davis is restrained and atmospheric with some lovely numbers, which the bewilderingly talented cast (they each seem to play all the instruments) perform with as much sparkle as they act their characters.

Once again The Tobacco Factory Theatres are out of the seasonal traps with a huge dollop of comfort and joy for all the family, proving, as if we needed reminding, that it’s not what you show but the way that you show it.    ★★★★★   Graham Wyles    6th December 2017